Halfway through this season, it feels like nothing has gone right for the Minnesota Twins. Injuries, poor pitching, and regression from core players have put the team in last place in the AL Central.
In March of 2019, the Twins signed them to nearly identical five-year deals. In exchange for financial security, Polanco ($25.75 million) and Kepler ($35 million) signed team-friendly contracts before they hit arbitration. The Twins decided to invest early in two young players who looked like they were going to be a part of this team’s core for years to come.
Kepler had a career year in 2019. He crushing 36 home runs, with an .855 OPS, and finished the season with 4.4 fWAR. His ability to hit lefties was a major reason for his success two years ago, something the left-handed-hitting Kepler has struggled with during his career with only a .214 batting average and .642 OPS against them. Kepler had a .293 batting average, nine home runs and 36 RBIs in 147 at-bats against lefties in 2019.
Polanco was right there with him. The switch-hitting shortstop was also putting together a career year with 22 home runs, a .292 BABIP, and a .356 OBP. His first-half performance earned him a spot as the starting shortstop in the All-Star Game that season. Polanco finished the year playing through an ankle injury, which hampered his production last year.
The shortened 60-game 2020 season saw a decline from Polanco’s 2019 form as he hit just four home runs, a .258 batting average, and a .658 OPS. Kepler also took a small step back last season after his career year in 2019. The right fielder hit nine home runs and recorded a .236 BABIP. He also had a .760 OPS which was above the league average of .740 in 2020 but a regression from his great season the year before.
Kepler and Polanco are linked by the contracts they signed before Minnesota’s 101-win season two years ago. For a moment it looked like they were ascending together at the right time with the Twins playoff window opening. The future of that core is in question after how this season has gone.
Kepler and Polanco were both having a rough time at the plate a month into the season. Kelper was slashing .220/.310/.340 while Polanco was only managing to hit .207/.268/.287.
The struggles have continued for Kepler as the season has gone on. He owns a .295 OBP, and only has nine home runs in 178 at-bats. A low strikeout rate and an ability to hit lefties were key to his success two years ago, and both have regressed this year. Kepler’s strikeout rate sits at a career-high 22.5 percent this season, and against lefties he has a .157 batting average, an OPS clip of .487, and only one home run.
It’s been a different story for Polanco. Halfway through this season, the second baseman has 10 home runs, a .749 OPS, and his strikeout percentage (15 percent) is one of the lowest in baseball. The biggest increase has come in his power, where his hard-hit (37.5) and barrel (8.3) percentages are career highs. Polanco’s 1.4 bWAR may not put him on a pace for his 2019 total of 4.4 bWAR but he’s playing his best baseball since then. Even though Kepler has been struggling to bounce back, Polanco has seemed to find his swing again.
Despite his troubles, Kepler’s hard-hit percentage and exit velocities are around the 75th percentile in all of baseball, according to Baseball Savant. Kepler has also been dealing with injuries, including missing time due to COVID-19 protocols. It looks like the Twins will give Kepler more at-bats to work through for the rest of this season. It’s the same method they used with Polanco, and Kepler has hit three home runs over the last two games.
The Twins are in a position to do the same with Kepler as they did Polanco because there is no serious threat to his job currently. Outfield prospects Alex Kirilloff and Trevor Larnach seem to have found spots this year in different positions with Kirilloff at first base and Larnach in left. But other upcoming prospects could put extra pressure on both players. Royce Lewis is the biggest x-factor here.
Polanco was already moved from shortstop to second base. This is not just because of his fielding limitations, it’s to clear the way for Lewis as the No. 1-overall pick in 2017 gets closer to the big leagues. And if his future home isn’t at shortstop, his other position in the minors has been in the outfield.
While Polanco has filled in at shortstop occasionally, his new home is going to be at second. However, Lewis isn’t his only competition. Luis Arraez continues to be a productive big league hitter who can man multiple positions, but he is best at second base. And you have to factor in José Miranda, who’s playing well in his first taste of Triple-A. He hit three home runs in his first action in St. Paul.
Lewis looks to be the shortstop of the future for the Twins. But if he can’t cut it at short, his second option is the outfield likely as a centerfielder. That would push other outfield prospects to the corners. With Larnach potentially taking left field, the only spot up for grabs would be in right field if Kepler’s hitting woes continue beyond this season. It looks like Kirilloff’s future is at first, but he could still end up in the outfield depending on how long Miguel Sanó is in Minnesota. And Matt Wallner is another left-handed hitting outfielder who could get a call-up in the near future.
Kepler and Polanco are two players that helped the Twins win the AL Central for the first time in almost a decade. Both are still fan-favorites despite the two different directions they’ve been going this season. The contracts give them some security as they are signed to multi-year deals until 2023. But as everyone’s future is now being analyzed with a rebuild of some sort on the horizon, Kepler needs to find something close to his 2019 form and Polanco needs to continue his good play if they want to remain in a Twins uniform going forward.